A group of health experts has warned that the recent attention given to improving the quality of school meals has overshadowed moves to get children to drink more

In its report, Drinking In Schools, the Expert Group on Hydration offers guidance on understanding the importance of adequate hydration for children’s health and academic performance.

‘A huge focus has been given to children’s nutritional intake in recent months – and rightly so,’ said Dr Paul Stillman of the EGH. ‘But,’ he added, ‘the EGH is concerned that hydration is at risk of being overlooked as part of the overhaul. Without adequate hydration at school, a child is at risk of experiencing headaches, lack of concentration and digestive problems. This could potentially have a devastating effect on quality of study and performance as well as adversely effecting health and general wellbeing.’

The report is based on research carried out at 82 secondary schools in 10 local authorities around the UK. It found that teachers and LAs recognise the benefits of hydration for their students but do not see it as a big priority. Ninety two per cent felt that hydration was a relatively easy problem to solve, yet only 13% were actually trying to solve it with a specific policy on hydration.

‘We recommend that children of this age should ideally be drinking two litres of fluid a day but it looks like many children are not even managing half this amount,’ said Dr Juliet Gray of the EGH. ‘That is bound to take a toll on health, performance and general wellbeing, so we have pulled together some advice on how to improve the current situation.’

Drinking in Schools can be downloaded from: www.experthydration.com.

The effects of dehydration

Health professionals have become increasingly concerned about the effects of dehydration on school children.

According to the British Nutrition Foundation, between 1.1 and 1.5 litres of liquid (around eight to 10 cups) needs to be drunk each day to replace the average amount of natural fluid loss. This is in addition to any water provided in food or made by the body.

Dehydration has been shown to reduce concentration and mental performance and affect behaviour and health. A study conducted at Leeds University showed that children’s ability to do arithmetic was impaired if they were between 1% and 2% dehydrated – not even enough for them to feel thirsty.

In extreme cases, being dehydrated can lead to medical problems, including urinary tract infection, constipation, bed wetting and a dry cough.

The BNF encourages schools to provide children with adequate supplies of drinking water. Its Food in Schools Toolkit includes a step by step plan for schools to assess their current water provision and promotion. It is available on the organisation’s website at: www.nutrition.org.uk.

Recommendations from the report

  • Every school should have a hydration policy and hydration should be included in plans to review the school meals system.
  • The emphasis of the importance of hydration in the national curriculum needs to be increased.
  • The availability of drinks in schools should be addressed. All schools should provide water fountains and water coolers. Access to fluids at school and, therefore, toilet facilities, should be unrestricted.
  • It would be beneficial to continue to allow children to bring drinks to school. A blanket ban would be unhelpful and inappropriate.
  • Drinks should be allowed in the classroom and children should be allowed to drink freely during classes. Indeed, they should be encouraged to do so, even if individual schools choose to limit the types of drinks that can be consumed during lessons.
  • If reusable drinks bottles are to be used, care and education need to be exercised with regard to good hygiene practices.
  • Vending machines can provide a controlled choice of drinks to enable adequate hydration. Schools can choose what they stock in these machines and a balance of water, fruit juice, dairy drinks and low calorie drinks would provide children with access to a variety of beverages that would encourage them to drink frequently.
  • Children should be actively encouraged to drink during morning and lunch breaks. Consideration should also be given to providing an afternoon break.
  • Children should be given active encouragement to drink before, during and after PE and other sporting activities.

Key findings

  • 40% of 11-18 year olds are not drinking the FSA’s recommended daily minimum amount of 1.2 litres.
  • whilst at school, children could possibly not have a drink for 8-9 hours a day.
  • just one school in 10 ever gives a child a drink and few encourage children to drink throughout the day; even at times when children are most at risk of dehydration (eg after physical education lessons), one third of schools offer no encouragement to drink.
  • only 2% of schools give children a drink with their lunch and this drops to 1% for the morning break.
  • 83% of respondents know that pupils would benefit from drinking more fluids throughout the day and 72% believe that better hydration would result in improved classroom behaviour.
  • two thirds of schools do not allow any drinking in the classroom, which leaves at least five hours in the day when children are not allowed to drink.